Submitted by Brian Dolinar on March 15, 2007 - 1:16pm
By Marti Wilkinson
On March 13, 2007, members of the community showed up at the Urbana Civic Center to learn how the criminal justice system works. A panel comprised of Sheriff Dan Walsh, States Attorney Julia Rietz, Public Defender Randy Rosenbaum, Associate Judge Richard Klaus, and Director of Court Services Joe Gordon shared what their duties are and how they do them. After their speeches, the participants selected written questions to answer. The only parts of the evening offering anything fresh and new were the cookies served to the people who attended.
During the lecture portion of the event, State’s Attorney Julia Rietz talked about how her office considers individual factors in making decisions on what criminal charges to press when a law is broken. Without revealing any names she mentioned receiving a phone call from a concerned father who wanted to see his daughters' abusive boyfriend get the book thrown at him for using his child as a human punching bag. Later in the conversation this same father pleaded for leniency on behalf of his son who got behind the wheel of a car drunk and killed somebody. She presented this as an example of how she is expected to engage in prosecutorial discretion.
As part of prosecutorial discretion, she considers the history of a defendant. For instance, if a person goes to a local store and steals a bottle of liquor, chances are that person will be charged with a misdemeanor, provided that there is no other criminal history. Then, if the person proceeds to commit the same crime again and again, the end result will ultimately be a felony charge due to the person becoming a threat to society.
On the surface level this makes sense to me. After all, if a person is given a chance to become a good citizen and blows it, then there is certainly reason to pursue the punishment approach. It is unfortunate that some of the choices made by the State’s Attorney’s office do not match her words. I have to question the decision Ms. Rietz made in 2006 when she decided to not pursue heavier charges against Jennifer Stark who killed a young man while she was driving down the street and downloading items to her cell phone at the same time. Considering that this was her fourth moving violation in two years, it would certainly seem reasonable to presume that Ms. Stark was not rehabilitated in her habits and it resulted in a loss of life. As it turns out the only conviction that Ms. Stark received was a guilty verdict for improper lane usage. Apparently, the State’s Attorney came to the conclusion that this individual poses no real threat to society.
Additionally, it begs the question of what to do when the people who are expected to uphold the law are the ones who break it. In 2005, an Urbana Police officer named Kurt Hjort was accused of raping a woman while on duty. Hjort resigned as a result of the investigation and no charges ever got filed against him. After the panel discussion ended I approached Ms. Rietz and asked her about the case and she stated that her office holds each and every officer accountable for crimes that are committed.
Considering the alleged rape occurred in 2005 and Ms. Rietz took office in 2004 it's a bit of a contradiction. She also stood firm in her decision to allow William Alan Myers, a former guard at the Champaign County Jail, to accept a plea bargain to charges associated with his decision to use a Taser on a restrained inmate and his later falsification of the reports of the incident. In return, he got two years probation and no jail time. Now exactly how did Myers end up being held accountable for his crime?
When Rietz was questioned after the panel discussion, she became defensive and made it quite clear that she did not wish to discuss the matter. She mentioned that Myers will have to live with a felony conviction and the loss of his pension. Neither would she discuss why her office did not prosecute Myers when two other people brought forth allegations of inappropriate Taser usage.
All it took was a simple question for Ms. Rietz to become defensive and somewhat confrontational. As an elected official in a public office she is in a position where what she does will be scrutinized and questioned. Members of the public have a right to ask questions, and the public has a right to get answers delivered in a reasonable and intelligent manner.
My suggestion to Rietz is she that she either works on developing a thicker skin or reconsiders what she does for a living. As long as she is in office, there are people who will question what she does and who will not be afraid to approach her with these inquiries. That is a basic part of her job and it's not left up to prosecutorial discretion.
A Message to “All Of You Sitting Out There” From State’s Attorney Julia Rietz and Sheriff Dan Walsh.
By Brian Dolinar
Question: What is the ratio of black to white citizens in the number of police raids upon individuals’ homes?
Sheriff Dan Walsh: I do not know the answer to that. We don’t keep statistics based on that.
Question: How does the Sheriff feel about a police review board?
Sheriff Dan Walsh: There is one. Its every four years for the Sheriff and any other elected official.
Question: How can I as a private citizen know what police procedure is and what I should do if I find police procedure has been violated?
Sheriff Dan Walsh: Police procedure’s going to depend. We get 1,000 different types of calls a year. It just depends on the type of call. If you think an officer, whether its one of my deputies or whether a city police officer, we all have formal procedures, if you wish to make a complaint, we’ll look into that. If somebody thinks one of my deputies has done something I encourage you to come into the office. We’ll ask you to fill out a complaint form and somebody will look into the matter and you’ll get a report. If we discipline them, we can’t tell you exactly what happened to the officer because that’s personnel matters. But we take it serious.
Community Court Watch response: Michael Rich filed a complaint against Sgt. William Alan Myers and received a letter from the Sheriff dated August 2, 2005 stating the force used against him was “justified.” Rich says he then met with Sheriff Walsh later that month and the Sheriff assured him he would look into Sgt. Myers. Walsh did nothing. Myers went on to wrongfully use a Taser on two other inmates, both who filed their own complaints, before he was turned in by fellow officers in November 2005. Why didn’t the Sheriff take seriously the three complaints against Sgt. Myers?
State’s Attorney Julia Rietz
Question: Why are 90% of defendants in criminal cases African American?
State’s Attorney Julia Rietz: Well, that’s not accurate actually. I have statistics from Champaign County. It is true that African Americans are overrepresented in our criminal justice system, as a they are overrepresented in many other areas. But it is not 90% of the defendants in criminal cases are African American.
In 2006, we filed – and this is total charges of felonies and misdemeanors. We charged 4,845 counts of anything from a misdemeanor to felony against African Americans. 3,868 counts against Caucasians. And 452 counts against something we have marked as Other. So African Americans are overrepresented, but its not 90% of the defendants are African American. I haven’t done the math as to what that is but its 60% versus 40%, or something like that.
Why is that? Well, isn’t that the million dollar question. That’s the question that is asked of all of us sitting here, in social services, in government, in our churches, in our schools.
Why is that? I’m certainly not going to stand up here and tell you that I, Julia Rietz, State’s Attorney for Champaign County has the answer to that question. Because I don’t. Because none of you sitting here do either. It’s a combination of things. It’s a societal issue. It’s a chicken and egg problem. Where did it come from first? Where did it start? I can’t tell you why it is.
But what I can tell you is that we all, sitting here, and all of you sitting out there, have an obligation to try to do what we can to solve that problem and to work together and to recognize that sometimes people need to rehabilitate themselves, to accept responsibility for their behavior, to go back to the victim of their crime and pay them back and go on to become productive members of the community.
Community Court Watch response: [provided by Durl Kruse] In 1964, the incarceration of the population in the United States, in local, state, and federal prisons, was two-thirds white. It was one-third black. In 1994, 40 years later, the numbers are exactly flip-flopped. Today, Two-thirds of prisoners are African American.
Question: By what criteria do charges get filed and dropped. Who decides to file or drop charges? Can you elaborate on how your philosophy differs from your predecessor?
State’s Attorney Julia Rietz: I can give you some specific examples of philosophies I have that are different from the previous administration and some numbers to support the fact that we are following those policies. For example obstructing justice. Obstructing justice is a felony. A Class 4 felony. What the offense of obstructing justice is generally thought of is if an individual provides false information to a police officer in order to avoid his arrest or prosecution. Now this has not gained me a lot of love from the police department in a lot of ways. Because I don’t believe that obstructing justice is when somebody gets pulled over and the officer says, What’s your name? And the person says, My name is John Smith. And the officer says, You’re not John Smith, I know you’re not. And the person says, Okay you’re right I’m Bob Jones. That’s not obstructing justice in my opinion. So we have changed our charging philosophies on that.
In 2004, the last year of the previous administration, they charged 230 counts of obstructing justice. In 2006, we charged 96 counts of obstructing justice. When I have my attorneys look at a report, we’re looking for something much more than Bob Jones, that example that I gave you. Obstructing justice is a real charge but it’s a very significant offense to put on someone, a Class 4 felony, that’s going to stick with them the rest of their lives, and so we look at that.
Community Court Watch response: We have had three individuals come to us in the last two years who have told us they have been charged with Class 4 Felony Obstruction of Justice. One of them was an IMCista (See Public i “Rule of Law” issue, Sept. 2006). Another woman had given a wrong name to an officer and came to us after she was told the State’s Attorney would not budge from the felony charges of obstructing justice. A third man says he was illegally stopped on the North End by police who were practicing racial profiling.
State’s Attorney Julia Rietz: That does not mean that we are soft on crime. What that means is that we are focusing our resources on what is what is most important in our criminal justice system: on the violent offenses, on the drug crimes, on the sexual assaults, on the homicides, instead of having our felony attorneys handling things that could be handled as misdemeanors, or be diverted.
We have in Champaign County a very significant crack cocaine problem. Our crack cocaine here in Champaign County is significantly higher than it is in other counties per capita. That is something that takes up a lot of our resources because the use and abuse of crack cocaine has implications beyond just that individual. It has implications for the community as a whole, for the children in the community, and for the individual themselves. So we are very strong on our prosecution of crack cocaine cases because of the implications we have seen across the board in our community in those situations.
Community Court Watch response: On Unofficial St. Patrick’s day, 162 tickets were issued with charges ranging from underage drinking, to aggravated battery, to one student who was arrested for spitting on a police officer. Another 100 tickets have been issued since the beginning of the year for alcohol related events on campus.
-500 individuals from Champaign County went to the penitentiary last year.
-Only 5% of cases go to trial.
-375 felonies a year handled by the Public Defender. Illinois State Bar Association recommends 150. 18 attorneys. $850,000 annual funding.
-Supreme Court rule 415c says police reports cannot bee seen by the public. After a recent decision by the State’s Attorney, police reports are no longer available to the public. Defendants can see police reports but attorneys cannot release the documents to the accused, by law.
-In 2006, there were a total of 9165 counts filed, both misdemeanors and felonies.
-4,845 counts were filed against blacks.
-3,868 counts were against whites.
-452 counts were against others.